Well. It’s been ages since I wrote a post and I do feel bad about it, honestly I do. I’ve kept thinking about it and meaning to do it but somehow … you know how it is. Sometimes life just takes over and before you know where you are, despite all your good intentions, you simply fall behind with the things you really want to do. My intention with this post is to bring you up to date with what I’ve been doing over the summer – just an outline or I’d be here all day and you’d lose the will to live. Future posts can go into it all in much more detail. Here we go:
It’s been a funny old year, hasn’t it, at least weather wise? I don’t know what the hell’s going on but we had the most god-awful winter which went on forever, had no spring at all but skipped straight to summer and, no sooner had I started to think that was endless too, we then launched straight into full on autumn. One minute we’d got 30 degrees C, and the next I was getting out my scarves and gloves, while some bloody no-life-numpty started bleating on about Christmas and isn’t it great that it’s only 20 weeks away or some such bollocks. Well, no. Frankly, it isn’t and it’s way too soon to be thinking about that. And I’m getting sidetracked already! The prolonged dry spell, with no mains water on site, affected the broad beans particularly badly; growth was stunted, resulting in a poor crop. The new potatoes, likewise, were ‘all tops and no bottoms’ – the potatoes themselves were a reasonable size but there were too few of them. I had better luck with the runner beans until a recent high wind ripped them out of the ground, leaving a right old mess. The high points were the perpetual spinach – the plant that keeps on giving – the apples which are so much better than last year, and the plums which have been absolutely amazing; plentiful, juicy, sweet, and delicious.
I had to do something with all those plums, so we’ve got plum and cinnamon jam (sounds strange but delicious), and a plum and apple chutney which could well be Blow-Your-Bum-Off chutney, as I went a bit mad with the spices – we’ll see in about another four weeks’ time when it’s ready to eat. Runner beans, gooseberries, and raspberries are in the freezer, along with stewed apple in various guises.
Just over a month ago, I became the proud and slightly frightened owner of four rescue hens. Liberated from a commercial barn environment, these girls had never seen grass or daylight, looked rather scruffy, and were surprisingly (and rather alarmingly) feisty. After being quarantined for two weeks, they were released to be with my existing flock who didn’t stand a chance. Poor Hilda, Evadne, Ada, and Cissy were jumped on, pecked at and generally bullied into submission but this only lasted two days, after I threatened the new girls with the soup pot or being taken back where they’d come from. In a bizarre display of chicken-ness, they are now all happily sharing a coop – I hadn’t intended this, and had spent ages renovating the wooden chicken coop for the new girls. There’s gratitude for you!
Damn. My first poorly chicken, poor old Hilda had the remains of a soft-shelled egg poking out of her bottom, with a soft-shelled egg stuck behind that. Much TLC was required but she recovered really well and is now fine and dandy, and laying again. I’m happy to talk more about this in another post if you think it’s of interest and don’t mind me talking about chickens’ bums and poo.
Aha, now this is a definite positive! As of the 1st October, I became a part-timer. This is something I’d been considering for some time, talking to my (very supportive) boss, working out finances, worrying about the effect on my pension, blah blah blah. In the end, I decided to just do it. I had what turned out to be a relatively minor health scare earlier this year and, at the end of the day, it’s no use having a pension if I drop dead before I get to collect it. I need to be happy now, instead of putting it off and saying ‘Oh well, I’ll do such and such, and be happy when I retire’ – I could be dead next week so I’ll take the gamble that I’ll have something better than cold baked beans to live on when I retire. Tomorrow will be my first day off, and the first day of my new life. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.
That’s sort of up to you! I’ve decided to let you choose what I write about next. Do you want to hear more about the allotment, the chickens or is there something else I’ve not covered which you think would be interesting or useful to read about? Please let me know – I love hearing from you!
I’ve been pondering this post for some time now. Over the past few weeks I’ve considered all sorts of topics, with weather being at the top of the list for obvious reasons. However, today is considerably fresher than the last few weeks and we’ve actually had some rain – hooray! Anyway, there’s been so much talk about the weather on Twitter, Facebook, and the news that I eventually decided to be very un-British and talk about something entirely different for a change. Finally, today it came to me. This blog is supposed to be all about what it’s really like living in the country, and part of that is rural pursuits.
But what does that actually mean? The phrase ‘rural pursuits’ conjures up images of rich people who really ought to know better galloping about the countryside on horseback, ripping animals to shreds. Or just galloping about on horseback. Or possibly weaving a basket before taking a break for high tea, complete with home-made cake and cucumber sandwiches. Well pardon me but for most of us that’s just chocolate box fantasy so sit back with a cuppa while I tell it like it is.
My mornings invariably start around 7ish (give or take) when I roll out of bed. Rather than Laura Ashley and tweed, I opt for usually grubby, paint-spattered walking trousers and a fleece. Oh, and wellies. I practically have them welded to my feet. Thus glamorously attired, I can take the girls fresh water and feed, let them out, and hand pick the poo out of their house – this gets saved for the compost bin on the allotment. There’s usually at least one or two eggs – I’ll collect the rest later – and it’s back in for breakfast. This weekend it was the Monyash Quilters exhibition – “Quilts in the Peak”. Held just once every three years, I had offered to help out in the kitchen on Sunday but I popped along on Saturday morning just to have a look while Mr P took the dogs out. I have to say it was a pretty impressive display!
From there I headed straight to Bakewell and Mr P went off to play cricket. For those of you who haven’t been, Bakewell is very pretty in a quaint sort of way, with a few high street chains, such as Boots, Fat Face, and Costa but otherwise it’s mainly independent shops selling everything from clothing to bears, books, and kitchenware. There are some real gems: Bakewell Cookshop, Birdsong (possibly the prettiest shop ever), and the Hartington Cheese Co. For those who like to browse the charity shops, Lighthouse is set out like a French brocante. I headed there first before legging it to my favourite place for coffee, Gallery Cafe, to try to avoid the lunchtime rush. I celebrated losing a bit of weight this week by indulging in a homemade scone with clotted cream and jam (cream first before you ask!) and a large flat white. It was a valuable bit of me-time accompanied by the book I’m reading at the minute – At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell, funnily enough! It’s a good read and I highly recommend it.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t hang around too long as I’d got things to do at home but I did just swing by the Farmer’s Market where I picked up a couple of succulents to plant in the wall at the back of the house. Given the weather lately, it seemed sensible to give them a try! If they do ok, I can buy more at the market when it’s back next month.
Back home there was a load of fruit waiting to be dealt with. I had gooseberries from my allotment and my neighbour on the next plot had given me a batch of whitecurrants. I’ve never actually eaten whitecurrants before. I grow blackcurrants on the allotment and there are two very productive redcurrant bushes in the garden which, to be honest, I don’t bother with. The blackbirds are welcome to them – I’ve got enough on my plate (pardon the pun) with everything else! The gooseberries just needed topping and tailing for the freezer, as I’d already made a batch of jam a couple of weeks ago. It’s not my favourite job but it is quite absorbing and I sorted them into cookers and ‘ripe-enough-to-eat-raw’ as I went. With those sorted and bagged up for the freezer it was time for the whitecurrants. I always think currants are a bit of a phaff, quite frankly, and probably more trouble than they’re worth – at least if you’re bothered by the seeds. I’m including a short video of the easiest way of getting currants off the stalks using a fork.
My allotment neighbour strains hers to get the seeds out but I really can’t be fannying about with all that – life’s just too short and besides, that’s what flossing is for. Also, I don’t really have space for doing it in our little kitchen. All our jam has to be made in the microwave because of the utterly useless piece of shit that is the Rayburn which masquerades as a cooker, water heater, and fires the central heating. Even when it’s turned on it’s hopeless but in this weather the only option is to turn the whole thing off and just use the immersion heater for water. This means we don’t have a hob and can’t even boil a bloody egg! So the microwave is the only option for jam. Or any kind of cooking at all. All I do is bung the fruit into a large bowl, heat it til it’s a bit mushy, add an equal weight of sugar and stick it back in the microwave for a few minutes – I just keep checking it and stirring a bit til it seems about right. It’s all a bit Heath Robinson but it seems to work pretty well really. Luckily, I prefer my jam soft – it’s so much more versatile as you can spread it on toast, dollop it on scones, or slather it over icecream. Or mix it with whipped cream. Or custard. Or … you get the idea.
By the time I’d done all this I was pretty knackered as I’d been on my feet all day and it was around 4.30pm. The dogs had already been out with Mr P for a good long walk but needed a quick ten minutes to stretch their legs. And so on. I still needed to get cracking on this blog post too but gave myself permission to watch an episode of Foyle’s War with a cup of tea. I love Foyle’s War; Michael Kitchen is fab even if Foyle is just a tad dour, and Sam’s a female version of Tim Nice-but-Dim. Having said that she seems to have a bit more about her in the later series. I managed to fit in a bit of sewing at the same time – I’m currently working on dressing a bear in clothing inspired by Dolly Parton’s song “My Coat of Many Colours”. This basically means I’m making a tiny patchwork coat – the pair of patched trousers are already finished. Anyhow, Mr P came home from cricket and I got sidetracked into going to the pub around 9pm, where Echo started barking and had to be taken home in disgrace, while Basil did his impression of a starving dog for the benefit of the people eating dinner at the next table and combed the carpet for errant chips. Somehow, in the midst of all this the girls were shut up in their house for the night well before I fell into bed long after midnight.
Today has been rather less busy – I’d volunteered to help out in the kitchen at the quilt exhibition so after dealing with the girls, I spent two hours washing pots. A highlight was venturing out to see how things were going and meeting Jenni of @notreallyafarm. It turns out we have plenty in common and a cup of tea is on the agenda. There was lots of cake about and I bought a whole chocolate, courgette and coffee cake to take home, with a promise from the baker to let me have the recipe. After a piece of cake and a cup of tea I managed another episode of Foyle’s War and then by 4.30pm felt compelled to take a nap! This isn’t like me really as I usually only sleep in the daytime if I’m ill but, since having been particularly unwell last autumn, it’s become a more regular occurrence than I’d like.
I really enjoyed my dinner tonight, partly because it was delicious, partly because some of it came from the sweat of my own brow. An omelette with home grown courgettes, my own potatoes, and eggs from the girls only needed a little feta cheese to become a feast. That was followed with a short walk with Mr P and the dogs, shutting the girls up for the night, and back to the blog. Bed is calling and I won’t be able to resist for long. Apart from the fact that I haven’t been to the allotment this weekend because of the rain, or walked with Mr P and the dogs because I was otherwise committed, this has been a reasonably typical weekend.
I suppose the point of all this is to say that there is plenty to do if you live a rural life but the days when I lived in the city and spent weekends meeting friends in town for coffee and shopping or going out for cocktails are long gone, and seem a million miles away. Much of what I do now revolves around creating things, whether it’s an allotment, quilts, bears, cakes, or meals. Dogs feature heavily, as do chickens. Activities are weather dependent, and maintaining a social life is largely reliant on me making an effort to get involved in what’s going on locally.
In short, you need to be able to find things to do indoors on a wet weekend without relying entirely on the TV or heading off to your nearest shopping centre; you only get out what you put in. A rural life is very much what you make it.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my allotment, I really do but just at the minute it feels like I might as well be banging my head against a brick wall. It’d certainly be less frustrating! I’ve been working hard on my plot for the last year, battling against waist-high weeds to try to carve out something even vaguely resembling a productive patch of ground. Until relatively recently, I had felt as if I was getting somewhere; I’d had much of my patch under thick black plastic for months on end, I’d manured a couple of areas last winter ready for planting in spring. Over winter, when anyone possessed of their sanity was keeping warm indoors, I was trogging up to the plot and digging over as much of the ground as possible, removing the roots of perennial weeds feet long, and picking out what seemed like a quarry-full of stones, setting them aside for use around the shed. I ordered seeds, three blueberry bushes which overwintered in the shed, and dreamed and waited for spring. And waited. And waited …
Spring never really arrived. It seemed that one of the worst winters I can remember surrendered abruptly to the advent of summer. And what a summer – it looks set to rival 1976! Our allotments, you may recall, have no running water and we are entirely reliant on what we collect from our shed rooves into water butts. My water butts were full but, with no rain to speak of in over two months, they’ve run almost dry. In desperation I ordered four 10-litre jerry cans. Now I wish I’d ordered twice that. Today I made two trips to the allotment, each with the jerry cans and half a dozen 2-litre milk containers saved for the purpose – 104 litres in total – in an effort to top up at least one of the five water butts.
At this point I’d like to stress that I’m not filling these straight from the tap but have pressganged Mr P into joining me in putting the plug in the bath when we have showers, and saving the washing up water. Doing this makes you acutely aware of how much water you use in the space of just one day, and much more careful not to waste any – I’ve found I can wash my hands perfectly well with just a trickle! However, as regards the allotment, with the best will in the world all this dry, hot weather is taking its toll. Basically, things are refusing to grow, and any produce I might have expected or hoped for is puny to say the least.
Raspberries are tiny but very raspberry-ish. Broadbeans are stunted so are producing very little though, again, what they are giving me is very tasty.
On top of all this, I’m having a god-awful time with voles. The sodding things are tunnelling their way through every bed, chomping on seeds and seedlings as they go, leaving holes everywhere. Moles are burrowing underneath and disturbing my planting, and my broadbeans are afflicted with blackfly. Like I said, banging my head against a brick wall! The old chap on the allotment in front of mine says he’s been doing this allotment lark for fifty years and can’t remember a worse year for growing produce. God only knows how farmers are managing. Mr P and I ran into one of the village farmers the other evening in the pub and got a bit of the lowdown. Grass isn’t growing and is so dry there’s little nutrition in it so livestock are having fodder taken out to them. Water pressure is lower than usual and troughs located uphill from the farms aren’t filling so farmers are having to take water out to them. What’s happening on arable farms and with vegetable producers I can’t imagine; apparently lettuce stops growing above 30-degrees centigrade. I think we should all prepare for having to cough up more for fruit and veg over the coming months.
Basically, I’m feeling frustrated, and a bit pissed off to be frank. I’m caught in a gardening Bermuda Triangle of worries relating to weather and wildlife. It would be easy to give up and hand over the allotment to someone on the waiting list.
But it’s still a beautiful place to be, it’s still the place that keeps me sane, and besides, I’m not a quitter. To paraphrase Scarlett O’Hara, 2019 is another year!
My website is connected to Twitter and Facebook. These days I don’t use Facebook as much as I once did, not necessarily because of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal (though that is a concern), but because Twitter has suddenly grabbed my attention. In part this is because it’s awash with shepherds, farmers, gardeners, and allotmenteers all tweeting away with useful hints and tips, not to mention cute pictures of lambs. It’s also because I’m somewhat obsessed with anything to do with rural life and am somehow living vicariously through other people’s seemingly wonderful lives – even though I know that it’s all bloody hard work. Yes, rural life is more about feeding the soul than the bank account, this I know.
There’s a fly in the Twitter firmament though. All these gardeners and allotmenteers, whose tweets and blogs I read, enjoy, and inwardly digest, are annoyingly good at it, far more organized than I am, much more experienced, and, quite frankly, I’m getting just a little bit pissed off. Everyone’s wonderfully supportive and helpful but, even so, I’m starting to feel just a little bit inadequate! Don’t they ever have seeds which fail to germinate? Don’t they ever buy completely the wrong tool for the job? Or suffer attacks of the heebie-jeebies worrying if they’ll ever produce anything at all that’s even vaguely edible once they’ve cut out the manky bits? Don’t they ever feel like, well, like a fake? I definitely do.
All this is putting me very much in touch with a sense of my own inadequacy; what if I’m not up to the job and actually don’t produce any edible crops? I don’t want to fail, who does? However, to date my successes are few and far between. When I took over my allotment, about a year ago, it was a beautiful, tangled mess of wildflowers and weeds. There was no shed, no water; you couldn’t even really see where beds had been.
Now, there’s a brand spanking new shed, on a site I levelled myself, complete with shelves I put up myself (do yourself a favour – don’t buy metal shelving units from B&Q), hooks to hold my tools, and a kitchen unit/butchers’ block bought from a charity shop to act as storage/potting bench. There’re blue plastic barrels bought for £2.50 from the local brickworks which act as water butts.
I’ll admit I was grateful to Mr P for carrying them up the sloping site but I could’ve done the guttering and downpipe myself if he’d let me. I connected the barrels together with a bit of plastic pipe … basically, I did pretty much everything myself. I don’t want to eat chemicals so I’m clearing the site the hard way … by hand, digging out the most enormous perennial weeds – nettle, dock, couch grass, and dandelion. It’s back-breaking work but strangely satisfying and it has a practical purpose – to feed us. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved on my own. But oh, it is taking time to get going.
Apparently it can take up to 21 days for broad beans to show their faces. I planted some at the allotment and about 10 days later, as a sort of experiment, planted some in loo roll innards (I wish someone would come up with a one-word name for them) and put them on the window sill in the sitting room. A couple of days ago I came home and was beyond excited to find that a broad bean had finally germinated. I was so excited I couldn’t do anything except point and say “broad bean, broad bean, broad bean!!!” The trouble is, nothing’s happened since. And I do mean Nothing. Nada. Ne rien. What am I doing wrong?!
It’s not that everything’s refusing to grow. I’m having some success with anything floral; the nasturtiums are going great guns, the sunflowers are coming up trumps, and the French marigolds are doing well too. But the tomatoes were looking very leggy and weedy so I’ve planted them deep in their 3″ pots, and the squash aren’t looking as if they’re going to do anything at all at the minute. Ok, so the leeks are doing really well and I’m happy to plant more but Mr P and I can’t just live on nasturtiums, sunflower seeds, and leeks (if anyone’s got a recipe which requires all three, please let me know).
The question is, what can I do? I can only keep going I suppose, try to be patient, refuse to be browbeaten by vegetables, and resort to alcohol. I’ll have a ‘Pissed as Arseholes’ cocktail, thank you very much. Well, it is a bank holiday weekend. Chin chin!!
Please feel completely free to contact me about anything at all. All gardening advice gratefully received or we can just talk about cocktails we have known and loved.
In the beginning, there was a woman who had always wanted an allotment but was thwarted at every turn in her attempt to get one. Great word, ‘thwarted’, don’t you think? Anyway, this woman had tried council run allotments, privately run allotments, had literally knocked on doors and asked “Please, can I have an allotment?” but all to no avail. Eventually, discouraged by this and by frightening stories of waiting lists years long, she gave up and told herself it just wasn’t to be. Then, one day, just as things seemed hopeless, she moved to a Peak District village and, almost overnight, everything changed …
Ok, this isn’t really a fairy story though things really did change in what sometimes seems like a miraculous way. Basically, about 15 months ago I moved to Youlgreave, which is a really lovely village of about 1000 people. It has a thriving community, there’s lots going on, there’s a Post Office, a vegetarian bakery ( https://www.peakfeast.co.uk/ ) a village shop with a cafe, and best of all so far as Mr P is concerned THREE pubs! Yes, that’s right, a village of 1000 people with three pubs – fabulous! Of these, The Farmyard ( http://www.farmyardinn.co.uk/ ) was our favourite as it does really good food (I can recommend the beef shortrib) and has a great atmosphere. But I digress. I moved there because Mr P and I wanted to see more of each other but weren’t ready to live together yet. A few months later we did move in together but at the time I really thought I’d be in Youlgreave for at least a year to 18 months and I wanted to feel settled there.
Mr P may have been impressed by the pubs but, for me, the exciting thing was that there were allotments. More than one lot of allotments in fact! I immediately put my name down for one in what I thought was vain hope rather than in anticipation of success. Anyone who has ever tried to get an allotment knows that it can be a terrible waiting game and is often a case of ‘dead man’s shoes’. To say I was amazed to get a letter offering me a plot just a few weeks later would be an understatement. I got back straight away to say I was interested, and arranged to meet the Parish Clerk at the allotment site.
At this point, for anyone reading this who doesn’t know anything about allotments, I’ll give you a potted history. An allotment is a small plot of land, traditionally measured in ‘poles’. Most plots are 10 poles in size which equates to around 2,700 sq.ft, and generally laid out as a rectangle of 33 x 82 ft. This is pretty generous and can be a bit much for a lot of us so many are divided up into half or even quarter plots which means people can stay on top of them and more of us get to enjoy them. These plots of land can be used to grow fruit, vegetables, and sometimes flowers, depending on the rules of each particular allotment site. During the 18th century people were increasingly prevented from accessing what had been common land by the Enclosure Acts, thereby being denied the ability to grow their own food and graze their animals. More and more land was closed off from ordinary people who became understandably peeved about this. Eventually, the unrest made posh people nervous so councils began allotting pieces of land to those in need. In 1906 this was enacted into a law which decreed that ‘allotments’ must be set aside for the poor in both the countryside and the towns. Things really took off during the two world wars. People had to be fed and the WWII ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign had people digging up their gardens, while allotments numbered a staggering 1.5 million – that’s a lot of veg!
Things tailed off somewhat once things picked up in the 1960s when people had more money and food was cheaper but, more recently, allotments have experienced something of a renaissance, hence the waiting lists which, in some areas, can be years long. However, that doesn’t mean things are looking rosy; allotments are under the ever-present threat of development, and there are fewer sites than previously. But there is a clause in the law which states that if enough people (understood to be six or more) submit a written request for an allotment, the council must provide them. Whether this actually happens I don’t know – it might help if people wanting allotments could band together and keep track of how many people have asked for them so that they can pursue the matter with the council if they don’t get a satisfactory outcome.
Anyway, to get back to the matter in hand, I trogged up to the allotment site to view what I understood was a half-plot. It’s actually 58 x 38 ft. I hoped to find a patch of land in relatively reasonable shape, perhaps even with a shed. What I was faced with was, to say the least, rather daunting. A shed had stood there once but had been dismantled and been left to the weather, while annual and perennial weeds stood almost waist high in places so that it was nigh on impossible to see where the beds were. But oh my … that view!
Situated on a south-facing slope, these allotments have a 360 degree view; behind us are fields of sheep and lambs, ahead is the view across the dale, while in the far left distance are the moors, with wooded areas to the right. On a gloomy day it’s lovely and relaxing, but on a sunny day it’s near-tear inducingly beautiful.
Also in its favour was the fact that, buried under the weeds, were things I would have planted myself; a handful of immature fruit trees which might produce in future, blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes, and both summer and autumn fruiting raspberries. So I said yes, paid the princely sum of £12 for a year’s rent and the plot was mine! All I had to do now was clear the plot of weeds, get the soil in shape, buy a shed, organize a rainwater collection system, plan the plot, learn how to grow things …!
Unsure where to start with all this, I decided the best plan of attack was to just start by strimming down the weeds so that I could see where the beds were and stand a chance of being able to clear them. Right from the beginning I knew I didn’t want to use chemicals, so there were no weedkillers, and I resisted advice from some quarters to rotavate the beds; if you’ve got perennial weeds, a rotavator just chops the roots into little bits, each of which can become a new plant – yikes! In the end, I dug up as many of the weeds as I could and covered the beds with thick black plastic. I bought this from B&Q and it’s the stuff builders use as a damp-proof membrane under concrete floors so it’s really thick. This is important for blocking the light out so the weeds can’t grow. At this point, I then left most of the beds covered like this for months while I concentrated on finding a shed.
In my next post about the allotment I’ll be talking about the shed, how important it is to me, and dealing with the difficulties of a site with no running water or electricity.
I’d love to hear to hear from you with feedback, comments, and will do my best to answer any questions. If you have experience of growing your own produce, I’d really like to hear about it – I have so much to learn! So please do use the form below to get in touch.